Now enrolling for summer programs. Click here to learn more.

So You Think You Have a Picky Eater?

Written by Kelli Miller, Occupational Therapist and Feeding Expert

Having two young children myself, I have gone through my fair share of frustrating moments wondering, “Why in the world will she not eat dinner?” or “Is it awful that he is eating chicken nuggets again?” I mean Chick-Fil-A is healthy right? Every parent has these thoughts, and it is developmentally appropriate for children to go through phases of eating more or less at times.
It seems that everyone you talk to these days has a “tip or trick” that worked for their picky eater. I can tell you from my own experience that it can be very frustrating when you try to follow all of this advice that worked for others, and it has no effect on your own child! The reason for this is simple and should not come as a major surprise: Not all picky eaters are created equal, and their treatment approach shouldn’t be either.

Not all picky eaters are created equal!

“Picky eating” does not have a true definition and will be defined differently by every person you ask. Unfortunately, this term is being used by both doctors and parents as an umbrella to describe kids on a very wide spectrum, and this terminology does not provide you with reliable information about your child or their eating habits. Some parents may label their child as a picky eater if she eats everything except vegetables or because she won’t eat at their favorite Thai restaurant. Others may describe their child as picky because he eats less than five foods total.

A study completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that up to 50% of young children were reported by their parents to be “picky eaters.” Picky eating can occur in typically-developing children, as well as in those with medical or developmental disorders. It can be overwhelming to determine if a child’s eating habits need intervention or if it is something that they will simply outgrow.

In practice, I typically define a true “problem feeder” as a child who eats 10 or fewer foods in each of the three food categories (proteins, starches, fruits/veggies); or a child who eats foods from only certain food categories, for example, only crunchy foods or only foods that are brown in color. If you have a problem feeder, you know the frustrations this can cause – the disruption of your family routines, such as not being able to participate in family meals, not being able to find anything to eat at a friend’s birthday party, or eating only brand-specific foods. This can feel like more than any one Mom or Dad can handle! Have comfort in knowing you are not alone, and there are qualified people ready and willing to help.

Playing with your food is okay!!

Whether your child is a “picky eater” or a “problem feeder,” one of the most important changes that you can make in your routine is to keep meals as low stress as possible. Encourage positive interactions with food and set good examples with your own meal. Serving meals family style is an excellent way to encourage improved interactions with a food that might not be your child’s favorite. Everyone at the table can take at least a small amount of every item served at dinner to put on their plate. As part of this process, the whole family can enjoy talking about the different foods – what they look like, smell like, taste like. Have fun with it! Make sure that your child has at least one food available that they enjoy eating, but otherwise, encourage exploring. Changing your mindset and believing that playing with your food is okay will be a major step towards helping your child. My four-year-old loves to write her name in yogurt, and my two-year-old is a huge fan of making a hat out of his toast… of course there is a time for table manners, but that comes after learning to eat! Embrace the chaos!

How can play help my child learn to eat?

Eating is one of the most challenging activities that we do on a day-to-day basis. It requires us to use all of our sensory systems together; to see, smell, touch, and taste a food. Then we must have the proper oral motor skills to know what to do with that food once it’s in our mouths. This is a lot of work for a kiddo, especially if there is a breakdown at one or more of the sensory or oral motor levels. A trained feeding therapist is able to help pinpoint where the breakdown is so an individualized treatment plan can be created for your child.

Feeding therapy at the ACCESS Feeding Clinic focuses on helping a children work through their individual barriers with food – this may look like anything from being able to touch a puree texture with their fingers, licking a salty food, or being able to take bites off of a chewy food. Feeding therapy is not always actually eating – often times, there are many other steps to conquer first. That is why we learn about foods through age-appropriate play, whether that be driving pretzel boats through chocolate pudding mud, making a spaghetti noodle face, or creating a new, yummy recipe for our family to enjoy.

The tips and tricks that you read all over the internet or hear from your friends and family may work for the “mild picky eater” kids, but sometimes a child needs just a little more. If everything you have tried isn’t working, it may be time to seek professional help for your child. Contact the ACCESS Early Childhood Campus Feeding Clinic for more information on the evaluation process. 501-217-8600